Science Fiction Studies

#47 = Volume 16, Part 1 = March 1989

Rafail Nudelman

Soviet Science Fiction and the Ideology of Soviet Society

Abstract.--There is no such thing, from a human point of view at least, as reality as it is. Some ideological model or other always mediates and informs our perception of it. The truth of this proposition is especially evident in regard to Soviet SF; and this is so not just because we in the West are aware of its ideological content for its being more or less alien to us but also because Soviet SF authors generally have a greater consciousness of ideology than do their Western counterparts.

Soviet SF through the 1970s and early '80s can be parceled out into three stages or periods. The first of these centers around the time of the Russian Revolution reflects the involvement with that Revolution on the part of both writers of SF and their readers. Typically this SF features a "wonderful catastrophe": the forces of chaos produce the collapse of the old world order, out of which comes new organization. Soviet SF in this phase focuses on humanity rather than on the individual and concerns a conflict between irreconcilably hostile powers (representing the old order versus the bearers of the new). Generally speaking at least, its temporal scope (corresponding to the Revolution's sense of urgency) is narrower and more homogeneous than its spatial dimensions, which tend to coincide with those of the universe. Within the "catastrophe chronotope," it exhibits a certain ideological diversity, but one which basically reflects the varieties of National-Bolshevism and by the same token displays a pronounced utopian impulse (in the adumbrating, if not the clear depiction, of a new world order--though the utopian horizon may also include anti-utopian prospects, as in the case of Zamiatin).

This first phase ended rather abruptly with the rise of Stalin. By the late 1920s or early '30s, it had already been totally displaced by an SF which was markedly formulaic, decidedly paranoid, and ideologically ossified. Soviet SF in this second phase continues to revolve around a polarization of antagonistic forces, but now the conflict is between the upholders of the Soviet State and its official ideology and villainous conspirators and spies bent on the nefarious overthrow of that order. The utopian horizon accordingly closes in considerably: the fictive space becomes local rather than cosmic and fictive time increasingly contracts to the length, say, of a Five-Year Plan. So, too--and in contrast to the SF of the Revolutionary period--what utopian prospects this SF holds out are more or less narrowly scientific-technological (i.e., involving new gadgetry) rather than pointing towards societal transformation.

By the late '40s and early '50s, such SF adhering to a strict ideological formula had turned into an unwitting parody not only of itself but of the official ideology whose tenets it was expected to uphold. It thereupon gave way, in the late '50s, to an SF that was more ideologically open than its predecessors had been. This openness, however, did not last much beyond the '60s, after which certain limitations were put on it (though these were not so severe as those of the Stalinist period).

While in that regard Soviet SF of the third phase recapitulates to some extent that of the first two, it differs from them in the way that ideology figures in its modeling of reality. Looked upon individually, the SF works of this period are not informed and dominated by a single ideology but instead turn on the clash of ideologies. They thereby resuscitate the utopianism of early Soviet SF, but in qualified terms and in the form of what are, first of all, ideological possibilities rather than social ones.

Soviet SF in this third phase reaches its high point in Efremov and the Strugatskys. The Strugatskys' heroes are individuals (but usually type-cast individuals), whereas Efremov concentrates on humanity at large, and likewise their respective ideological preferences differ from one another. Nevertheless, their works share a humanistic tendency which comes out of their common concern with offering alternative (utopian) visions: one emanating from "official myth," the other an ideological construct opposing it and hence calling of official ideology into question.

George E. Slusser

Structures of Apprehension: Lem, Heinlein, and the Strugatskys

Abstract.--What is the nature of science in SF, and what role does it play in shaping its fictions? Is it a "theme" ? Or a "subject" ? Or does it, as is often claimed, operate as a method of inquiry, causing fictional structures to shape themselves around the cognitive adventure of humankind as it investigates the material universe? Such fiction, for Stanislaw Lem, would have to focus, not on actions or characters, but on the "structure of the description." But Lem doubts that fiction, because its structures are traditionally limited to a human viewpoint, is (inherently) adequate to this task. Epistemological or "cognitive" fiction for Lem is a logical contradiction in terms. And yet Lem himself is drawn to attempt such fiction. And to do so within the traditional frame, not just of fiction, but of SF.

This essay examines the limitations and possibilities of SF as epistemological fiction. In order to do so, however, it modulates the problem by renaming Lem's structures of description structures of apprehension. To apprehend is not simply to know, but to touch and to fear as well. The term is more apt than Lem's because it takes into consideration the fact that human science--precisely because, as Lem says, humankind's theories are fictions, and hence mirror-images of the human mind and the mark of its inherent limitation--is both a logical and an apprehensive process, where the fear is the loss of a human identity itself. Apprehension is the tension on the thread that links science and fiction in the SF compound. And SF, under the sign of this apprehension, is the fictional form that most clearly addresses the increasing epistemological separation, first formulated by Descartes and Pascal, between human reason and extended nature--inner and outer space.

This essay examines three existent structures of apprehension in SF: the skeptical, as exemplified by Lem's Solaris (1971); the sentimental, as in Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973); and in the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic (1972), the complementary. The first two remain essentially 18th-century responses to the mind-nature duality--responses whose apprehensive nature derives from the fact that the human mind in the first case, or the human form in the second, strives to preserve, in its cognitive dealings with the extended world, its identity as coherent and invariable system. In the Strugatskys, however, we have signs of SF seeking--in line with recent speculation in science on the human mind as a system in constant participation with the phenomenal world--to convert Cartesian duality into a relationship of complementarily in the Bohrian sense of the word.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home